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Posts Tagged ‘materialism’

Sept death cafe poster

Just another week to go before the next meeting of the Death Cafe, so just re-posting this account of the first meeting I attended a few months back as a reminder.  

It was a pleasant walk yesterday evening to the Courtyard. It was an obvious venue to choose in some respects. It’s accessible, and connected in most people’s minds with pleasant memories of films, plays and shows. Just the sort of place to attract people to an event.

There was a catch though. Who wants to go to a Death Cafe? Would the magnet of the venue be enough to overcome the unmentionable word’s repellent effect?

Well, it seems that it was.

There were nine of us turned up for the experience. Admittedly, it sounded from what was said that even those who tried had failed to persuade any of their friends to come along as well. Incredulity combined with revulsion seemed the order of the day for most people.

That was one of the topics we explored together.

Why was our society so reluctant to talk openly about death? We shared stories of how the dying were met with refusal when they tried to open up the subject with their nearest and dearest. We contrasted it with other cultures whose traditions encourage them to sit in the same room as the dead person for hours, sharing moments of alternating laughter and sadness as they remember the life that has ended.

We were a mixed bunch.

Not all of us had been or still were in the ‘helping professions.’ A couple of us were people whose ordinary lives alone had caused them to seek a deeper understanding of death. One described how she had been visited by her parents as they died. Another how advancing years and his wife’s struggle with ill health was forcing death upon his attention.

Some openly mentioned their faith, including a Buddhist whose work was with the dying and bereaved, and a Christian who had experienced healing communion services that allowed the unquiet dead to rest.

We covered many other topics, amongst others: how knowing you are dying can lead to feelings of hopelessness, boredom, helplessness and an absence of all meaning; wondering how to deal with pain more effectively; and looking at ways of preparing for our death, and helping those who are left to celebrate our lives in the way we would have wished.

I even heard of roles unknown to me before. The idea of a ‘soul midwife’ had never crossed my ken. I also had not realised that the local hospice also ran a ‘hospice at home’ service.

I was given an opportunity to voice my somewhat crusading concerns about how a materialist model of psychology, which I feel is still the default position, could make interventions unhelpful or even damaging, discounting as it does the possibility of a spiritual dimension.

And everyone agreed that, regardless of all the different ways of describing that ineffable reality, we are talking about fundamentally the same thing, and it is something that binds us all together. The different way we speak of and understand it should not become a source of division and disagreement.

We tackled the question of how our individualistic and competitive society could recover or recreate a sense of connectedness in families and neighbourhoods so that people would be prepared to put themselves out to help others and that this sense of compassionate connectedness would endure rather than fizzle out. The evidence that Jonathan Haidt quotes, in The Righteous Mind, was mentioned, suggesting that groups requiring members to make sacrifices lasted longer if there was a spiritual worldview underpinning them.

At the end of the meeting our attention was drawn to a website recently launched which facilitates the sharing of ideas to help meet life’s challenges including those at the end of life. It works on the basis that pooling ideas enhances our ability to create solutions. See link for more info.

The two hours of the meeting flew by. We were keen to make sure there will be another one next month.

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Random-Number-Generator_1

Readers should take note of a new section in Chapter 6 entitled “Psi Phenomena.” We have discussed parapsychology in previous editions but have been very critical of the research and skeptical of the claims made in the field. And although we still have strong reservations about most of the research in parapsychology, we find the recent work on telepathy worthy of careful consideration.

(From the Preface to Introduction to Psychology by Richard L. Atkinson – 1990: quoted in The Spiritual Brain, page 169) 

In science, the acceptance of new ideas follows a predictable, four-stage sequence. In Stage 1, skeptics confidently proclaim that the idea is impossible because it violates the Laws of Science. This stage can last from years to centuries, depending on how much the idea challenges conventional wisdom. In Stage 2, skeptics reluctantly concede that the idea is possible, but it is not very interesting and the claimed effects are extremely weak. Stage 3 begins when the mainstream realizes that the idea is not only important, but its effects are much stronger and more pervasive than previously imagined. Stage 4 is achieved when the same critics who used to disavow any interest in the idea begin to proclaim that they thought of it first. Eventually, no one remembers that the idea was once considered a dangerous heresy.

(Dean Radin: The Conscious Universe – page 1)  

Another post it seemed appropriate to republish at this point.

In 2002 I read a fascinating book on parapsychology by H.J. Irwin. My recent reading of another intriguing book, The Spiritual Brain, triggered a memory of that experience.

Irwin’s book is a rigorous examination of the work done up to that point in the field of parapsychology. I was still working in the NHS at the time and swimming against all the powerful reductionist currents of thought flowing along the broad estuary of mental health work.  Reading this book was yet another attempt to find a sound empirical basis for my scepticism about materialism.

That sounds like a futile ambition, you may think. But I am not alone in cherishing that hope. Beauregard and O’Leary quote Eccles and Robinson with approval in The Spiritual Brain as saying (page 125):

We regard promissory materialism as superstition without a rational foundation. The more we discover about the brain, the more clearly do we distinguish between the brain events and the mental phenomena, and the more wonderful do both the brain events and the mental phenomena become. Promissory materialism is simply a religious belief held by dogmatic materialists . . . who often confuse their religion with their science.

So that makes five of us at least.

Where a nonmaterialist explanation works well

What reactivated my interest of more than decade ago was Beauregard and O’Leary’s list of things that a nonmaterialist perspective can explain better than a materialist one (ibid.)

For example, a nonmaterialist view can account for the neuroimaging studies that show human subjects in the very act of self-regulating their emotions by concentrating on them. It can account for the placebo effect (the sugar pill that cures, provided the patient is convinced that it is a potent remedy). A nonmaterialist view can also offer science-based explanations of puzzling phenomena that are currently shelved by materialist views. One of these is psi, the apparent ability of some humans to consistently score above chance in controlled studies of mental influences on events. Another is the claim, encountered surprisingly often among patients who have undergone trauma or major surgery, that they experienced a life-changing mystical awareness while unconscious.

My clearest memory of Irwin’s book concerned precisely the massive amount of meticulously generated evidence in favour of psi, especially in terms of subjects’ accurately predicting random numbers at a level slightly but consistently above chance over thousands of carefully controlled trials.  Not a dramatic finding, perhaps, not like apparently successful mediumship or seemingly bending spoons on television, but in an important way more compelling and significant than any of those because all possibility of fakery had been eliminated to leave it beyond all reasonable doubt that something materialists couldn’t explain was going on.

psi dice

Rear-guard materialism

Most materialists, little to their credit or credibility, resolutely refused to look carefully at the evidence as they knew in advance that such findings were impossible and must be the result of fraud or sloppy methodology. So much for science’s supposed openness to all evidence. In fact, it has always been blinded by its current paradigms, so there is really no surprise here either.

Beauregard and O’Leary quote a particularly startling example of materialistic zealotry. Grossman tells of his encounters with materialists about NDEs. He recalls one snatch of dialogue which they quote (page 166)

Exasperated, I asked, “What will it take, short of having a near-death experience yourself, to convince you that it’s real?” Very nonchalantly, without batting an eye, the response was: “Even if I were to have a near-death experience myself, I would conclude that I was hallucinating, rather than believe that my mind can exist independently of my brain.”

There’s no arguing with such intransigent dogmatism – in the face of the evidence that I am convinced exists but which it refuses to examine, such an attitude is bordering on the delusional. What makes it all the more bizarre is that the evidence for psi has been conducted with a rigour and extensive sample size that would be the envy of many a mainstream researcher. Beauregard and O’Leary summarise the findings as follows (pages 170-171):

Psi is not a form of magic. It is a low-level effect demonstrated in many laboratory studies—one that materialism does not account for. . . . Generally, the studies show that people sometimes get small amounts of specific information from a distance that do not depend on the ordinary senses. . . The experimental subject is asked to influence the [Random Number Generator’s] output by “wishing” for 1’s or 0’s. A small but stable effect has been shown over sixty years of tossing dice and RNGs that is reliable irrespective of the subject or the experimenter and remains when independent or skeptical investigators participate.

Not many experimental findings survive, for example, their attempted replication by sceptical experimenters. That in itself argues for something valid as well as seriously strange going on. Sadly we meet the same kind of scientistic dogmatism once again. They quote (pages 171-172) from Dean Radin‘s The Conscious Universe – which I read so long ago I’d completely forgotten it:

Skeptics who continue to repeat the same old assertions that parapsychology is a pseudoscience, or that there are no repeatable experiments, are uninformed not only about the state of parapsychology but also about the current state of skepticism!

entanglement-two

For source website see link

A Blinding Double-bind

Radin also points out the resulting double bind with blistering clarity (quoted on page 173):

If serious scientists are prevented from investigating claims of psi out of fear for their reputations, then who is left to conduct these investigations? Extreme skeptics? No, because the fact is that most extremists do not conduct research; they specialize in criticism. Extreme believers? No, because they are usually not interested in conducting rigorous scientific studies.

I have taken his book down off my shelves and placed it on my desk to read again.

Beauregard and O’Leary conclude (ibid.):

Psi must find its place within an evidence-based paradigm of physics, psychology, and neuroscience. However, working out and testing a hypothesis for psi faces some obstacles in a materialist environment. . . .

They are clear that the effect is small (page 167):

The stubborn problem turns out to be a small statistical effect from controlled laboratory studies, the psi effect, a general term for telepathic and psychokinetic phenomena.

And they are suitably cautious about the hypotheses we can build upon this robust but tiny effect (page 177):

Regarding psi, we can assume one of two things: (1) every single instance of psi is a direct interference in nature, presumably by a divine power from outside the universe; or (2) the universe permits more entanglement than the materialist paradigm does.

They favour the second idea. I would be delighted if this were to be more seriously investigated by mainstream researchers and the findings were then to be integrated into a more spiritual model of reality. The days of materialist domination are numbered, I feel: I’m just not sure how many more there are – whether it will be millions or merely thousands.

Radin

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Illustration by Michelle Laporte.

Illustration by Michelle Laporte.

A recent comment on my blog alerted me to this intriguing article by Carolyn Rose Gimian, which I felt was well worth drawing more attention to even though is more than ten years old now. Below is a short extract: for the full article see link.

The Lords of Form, Speech, and Mind – we think they’ll make us happy and secure, but Carolyn Gimian tells us that everything wrong with the world and our lives is their creation.

The Kalachakra tantra talks about a time when the three lalos, the barbarian kings, will rule the earth. In the 1970’s, Buddhist author Chögyam Trungpa referred to the three lalos as “the Three Lords of Materialism.” That translation has been adopted as the standard, perhaps because it so aptly describes the attitude that rules the modern world. Indeed, materialism is king.

The Three Lords are the Lord of Form, who rules the world of physical materialism; the Lord of Speech, who rules the realm of psychological materialism; and the Lord of Mind, who is the ruler of the world of spiritual materialism.

All Three Lords serve their emperor, ego, who is always busy in the background keeping his nonexistent empire fortified with the ammunition supplied by the Lords. According to the Buddhist understanding, the ego is a collection of rather random heaps of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and basic strategies for survival that we bundle into a nonexistent whole and label “me.” The Three Lords act in the service of this basic egomania, our deluded attempt to keep this sense of self intact.

On a simple level, these aspects of materialism deal with the challenges of everyday life: fulfilling one’s needs for food and shelter for the body, food for thought, and spiritual sustenance. The problem arises when we begin to pervert these parts of our lives, adopting them as the saving grace or using them to protect us from our basic insecurities.

Why are you unhappy? What is it that you need in life? When you begin to think that the pink pair of shoes you saw last week at the mall is going to really rock your boat and rescue you from depression, that is the moment when the Lord of Form, or physical materialism, begins to hold sway. Think that all your problems will be solved by winning the lottery, writing a bestseller, or being the winning contestant on Survivor? Welcome to the game show of the Lord of Form.

Just about any religion or spiritual movement will tell you that physical materialism is not the ultimate solution. It is an extremely powerful force, especially in the world today, but it is easier to deconstruct than the other two Lords—although not necessarily easy to escape from. Psychological materialism, on the other hand, is much more subtle, and religion is split on whether or not psychology, philosophy, and scientific systems of belief are enemies or friends.

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'Modern Times' (for source of image see link)

‘Modern Times’ (for source of image see link)

In the last post we looked at Paul Mason’s discussion of surplus value and some of its implications. What seems to me particularly important for present purposes is the way he teases out so clearly how this process is destined eventually, whenever eventually might be, to running out of road. There will be not enough labour involved in production to create enough surplus value to sustain the capitalist model.

Karlberg, whom I also quoted at length in the last post, is largely focusing on value-based and moral arguments and the evidence that supports them. While I find them compelling not everyone will, not least the average profit-centred believer in the market.

The special interest to me of what Mason says lies in the fact that it is, if true, a pragmatic argument. It suggests that it is in the interests even of those, whose drive for increasing profit is their primary motivation, to recognise that what they are seeking to do is not only ultimately unsustainable because of the eventual exhaustion of natural resources, which seems a long way off;  unacceptable because of the costs in terms of pollution and climate change; and morally indefensible because of the debilitating hardships of the workforce. It is also unsustainable in its own materialistic terms. That capitalists appear to be in denial about the nature of their own reality does not diminish the power of this idea if it is true. Even if only partly true because it is only one aspect of a far more complex reality, the idea deserves a wider hearing than it seems to get at present and needs to be mnore carefully considered.

One of the reasons it remains so hard to prove is adduced by Mason himself in a different context in his book (page 271):

Given that we are decades into the info-tech era, it is startling that… there are no models that capture economic complexity in the way computers are used to simulate weather, population, epidemics, or traffic flows.

This is partly what makes debates about what major steps will most benefit the economy so flawed: there is no way exactly to predict what will happen in economic terms as a result of any specific option, so the power of the arguments lies then not in facts but in gut reactions, a very dangerous scenario. As a result, such debates, in any society with gross inequalities such as ours, can and frequently do reduce down to the pain and anger of the marginalised and disadvantaged being focused, by those seeking to influence them, on any convenient scapegoat as the cause of problems whose origin is far more complex.

We are often also blinded by our competitive materialism to the existence of other options and other arguments. Where do we go from here?

Black Friday (for source of image see link)

Black Friday (for source of image see link)

Consumption:

From the point of view of us as individuals, given that the business world is largely blind to the problem, what can be done?

We don’t have to look far for a key component of the problem, which is to some degree within our control: consumption. An interesting article on the Bahá’í Teachings website looks at this from within the context of climate change.

That vast range of potential sea level rises, which our children and our grandchildren will inherit from us, will depend on our consumption of fossil fuels, food and material goods. If we continue to consume those things in the same way we have in the past, we will flood the planet’s shores. If we mitigate and reduce our consumption, by converting to renewable energy sources, eating less wasteful and more moderate plant-based diets and finding ways to control our runaway, materialistic habits as consumers, we still have a chance of averting the drowning of the world’s great cities.

Perhaps Abdu’l-Baha had these future conditions in mind when he said “The sea of materialism is at flood tide and all the nations of the world are immersed in it.

It is important to realise also that there are other admittedly embryonic models for how society could begin to organise itself beyond the purely individual level. A recent symposium on Strengthening Local Economies for a Just Global Order, was held on 23 February this year at Devi Ahilya University in Indore, India. Its speakers articulated where we might begin to focus our attention:

“When village economies develop, why must they be limited to either capitalist or socialist models? We are seeking to forge new patterns and new models.”

The University’s Dean of Social Sciences, Dr. Kanhaiya Ahuja, emphasized the need for economic models that would reinforce the values of community life, such as compassion, contentment, cooperation, justice, and a sense of duty towards the common good. “Unfortunately,” he mentioned, “at present economic growth is being driven by consumerism and competition that are destroying these values.”

Speakers also discussed the need for balanced and just economic growth, viewing development within a broader vision of the spiritual and material prosperity of humanity.

“Economic models today give humanity a very limited range of options in explaining human behavior,” Dr. Fazli said. “One is to explain it in terms of greed, self-interest, and profit motive. The other is to say that the only way to organize society is to have absolute equality.

To understand our power as consumers we could start with Ehrenfeld, to whose thinking I turn now. In Flourishing, a book which records his thoughts in an interview with Andrew J. Hoffman (page 151) he states:

Consumers can exert a great deal of influence over corporations, just like voters can exert a great deal of influence over the political structure. So as consumers start turning away from products that have been purchased to feed some addiction and can’t satisfy them, and seek goods to help them authentically care for themselves and others in the world, then they become able to push back very hard on corporations.

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

Flourishing:

There are many encouraging signs that the prevailing wind might be changing direction.

For example, Ehrenfeld analyses in detail exactly where our mindless absorption with consumption has brought us and summarises it at one point as follows (pages 82-83):

Executives of the firms that are pushing sustainability… are unaware or purposely ignoring that the global economy is already consuming more than the Earth can provide. No matter what happens in the United States and Europe, the burden will increase as the rapidly growing economies of China, India, and elsewhere strive to attain the same levels that we “enjoy.”

But do we “enjoy” our consumer lifestyle? Data on drug abuse, crime, social alienation, and disintegrating communities might suggest otherwise. And yet, we continue to seek satisfaction in having and consuming more stuff.

As more of us consume more as more countries get wealthier, time may be running out.

Even our remedies unfortunately are flawed. Ehrenfeld believes that our current understanding of sustainability, and its promise of a sustainable future, is a delusion (page 11):

Hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, wind farms and green buildings, these are all just the trappings that convince us that we are doing something when in fact we are fooling ourselves, and making things worse….Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability.”

He suggests a more viable idea: ‘sustainability-as-flourishing.’ He describes four key elements (pages 27-28):

First, flourishing is the realisation of a sense of completeness, independent of our immediate material context. Flourishing is not some permanent state but must be continually generated. . . . . Flourishing is the result of acting out of caring for oneself, other human beings, the rest of the ‘real material’ world, and also for the out-of-the-world that is, the spiritual or transcendental world. . . . Second it is about possibility. Possibility is not a thing. . . . it means bringing forth from nothingness something we desire to become present. . . . . Third, the definition includes far more than human benefit. Flourishing pertains to all natural systems that include both humans and other life. Finally, adding forever to this definition lends it the timelessness that is found in virtually all conversations about sustainability. In fact, sustainability makes little sense except as a lasting condition. It is that important.

He feels we have forgotten what it is to be human and, blinded by materialism, we reduce everything about growth to economics (page 41):

If religion boils down to a group’s ‘ultimate concern,’ then growthism is our religion and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is our god. But this religion exacerbates the destructive and violent intrusion of human culture into both nature and our own conception of who we are.

It’s not, he assures us, about stopping consumption; it’s about how we consume. Our pervasive consumer culture is a choice that we’ve made: “This behaviour is so embedded that it appears to be human nature… But it is a cultural phenomenon”.

Sustainability-as-flourishing, he says, requires the re-conceptualization of our lives around two perspective-shaking ideas. We need to shift our dominant mind-sets from Having to Being and from Needing to Caring (pages 99-100):

Having is not a fundamental characteristic of our species. We are not creatures with insatiable wants and desires, even though that self-view has been reinforced by our present consumptive patterns. . . . . . Being is the most primal characteristic that distinguishes humans from all other species. Being is the basic way we exist in the world and is enacted whenever we exhibit authentic care. . . . .

Need is based on a deeply embedded insecurity that is fed by our modern culture telling us that we are incomplete or inadequate unless we acquire whatever thing will fill that artificial hole… Caring reflects a consciousness of our interconnectedness with the world (the web of life) and the historic recognition that well-being depends upon acting to keep these relationships in a healthy state. . . . . .

Institutions built on this premise will be very different from those of today. . . . . When we rediscover we are, we will live out our lives taking care of a world composed of our own selves, other humans, and everything else.

Ehrenfeld (page 104) also sees spirituality as going beyond the material and explains: ‘This domain is especially important to sustainability, as it heightens one’s sense for the interconnectedness of Being’ and goes on to say that ‘At the centre of this notion of interconnection is that of love . . . . Love is not a something, but a way of acting and accepts the Being of all others as legitimate.’ This reminds me of Scott Peck’s dictum in The Road Less Travelled that, ‘Love is not a feeling: love is work:’ those may not be his exact words, but how I have remembered what I thought he meant.

Almost Ehrenfeld’s final words on this aspect of the matter are (page 105): ‘Sustainability-as-flourishing without love is not possible.’

His thinking though does not stop there as we shall see in the next and final post in this sequence.

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melting-ice-caps

Global warming is a real danger. More and more of us realise this. Will enough of us stop our rising levels of consumption to make a difference? It’s our choice. I missed this piece by David Langness on the Bahá’í Teachings website when it came out at the end of last month, so I’m making up for lost time now thanks to the alert of an FB friend. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

The sea of materialism is at flood tide and all the nations of the world are immersed in it. – Abdu’l-BahaDivine Philosophy, p. 138.

At the bottom of our planet, down there where the penguins live in Antarctica, the ice is melting. Fast.

In Greenland, at the top of the planet, it’s melting even faster.

If Antarctica’s ice melts, along with Greenland’s, it will flood the world, submerging most of humanity’s great coastal cities under the waves.

Why? Well, the ice is mighty deep in Antarctica—more than a mile deep in most places. About seventy percent—yes, that’s right, seven-zero percent, 70%–of the world’s fresh water is locked up in Antarctica’s frozen mass of ice.

Here’s how it all works: the Earth has two “ice sheets”—huge continental-sized glaciers that cover entire landmasses. The world’s smaller ice sheet covers most of Greenland (1.7 million square kilometers, or 660,000 square miles). The biggest planetary ice sheet covers Antarctica (14 million square kilometers, or 5.4 million square miles—about the size of the United States and Mexico, combined). Together, they hold the vast majority—more than 95%–of the world’s fresh water, frozen in that deep blue ice.

If it all melts—Antarctica and Greenland both—sea levels will rise 216 feet, or almost 70 meters.

That would create a true global catastrophe. It would displace much of the world’s population, since about half of all humans now live within 37 miles (60 kilometers) of the sea. All low-lying, ocean-adjacent areas of the world would be inundated. Three-quarters of the world’s major cities sit on the coastlines of an ocean; so goodbye New York, Sydney, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Shanghai, London, Kolkata, Bangkok, Tokyo, Miami, etc., etc. Want to see what a post-ice sheet world would look like? National Geographic has an interactive map.

Why do I raise this frightening issue?

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Grave & Courtyard v2

It was a pleasant walk yesterday evening to the Courtyard. It was an obvious venue to choose in some respects. It’s accessible, and connected in most people’s minds with pleasant memories of films, plays and shows. Just the sort of place to attract people to an event.

There was a catch though. Who wants to go to a Death Cafe? Would the magnet of the venue be enough to overcome the unmentionable word’s repellent effect?

Well, it seems that it was.

There were nine of us turned up for the experience. Admittedly, it sounded from what was said that even those who tried had failed to persuade any of their friends to come along as well. Incredulity combined with revulsion seemed the order of the day for most people.

That was one of the topics we explored together.

Why was our society so reluctant to talk openly about death? We shared stories of how the dying were met with refusal when they tried to open up the subject with their nearest and dearest. We contrasted it with other cultures whose traditions encourage them to sit in the same room as the dead person for hours, sharing moments of alternating laughter and sadness as they remember the life that has ended.

We were a mixed bunch.

Not all of us had been or still were in the ‘helping professions.’ A couple of us were people whose ordinary lives alone had caused them to seek a deeper understanding of death. One described how she had been visited by her parents as they died. Another how advancing years and his wife’s struggle with ill health was forcing death upon his attention.

Some openly mentioned their faith, including a Buddhist whose work was with the dying and bereaved, and a Christian who had experienced healing communion services that allowed the unquiet dead to rest.

We covered many other topics, amongst others: how knowing you are dying can lead to feelings of hopelessness, boredom, helplessness and an absence of all meaning; wondering how to deal with pain more effectively; and looking at ways of preparing for our death, and helping those who are left to celebrate our lives in the way we would have wished.

I even heard of roles unknown to me before. The idea of a ‘soul midwife’ had never crossed my ken. I also had not realised that the local hospice also ran a ‘hospice at home’ service.

I was given an opportunity to voice my somewhat crusading concerns about how a materialist model of psychology, which I feel is still the default position, could make interventions unhelpful or even damaging, discounting as it does the possibility of a spiritual dimension.

And everyone agreed that, regardless of all the different ways of describing that ineffable reality, we are talking about fundamentally the same thing, and it is something that binds us all together. The different way we speak of and understand it should not become a source of division and disagreement.

We tackled the question of how our individualistic and competitive society could recover or recreate a sense of connectedness in families and neighbourhoods so that people would be prepared to put themselves out to help others and that this sense of compassionate connectedness would endure rather than fizzle out. The evidence that Jonathan Haidt quotes, in The Righteous Mind, was mentioned, suggesting that groups requiring members to make sacrifices lasted longer if there was a spiritual worldview underpinning them.

At the end of the meeting our attention was drawn to a website recently launched which facilitates the sharing of ideas to help meet life’s challenges including those at the end of life. It works on the basis that pooling ideas enhances our ability to create solutions. See link for more info.

The two hours of the meeting flew by. We were keen to make sure there will be another one next month.

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child-soldier-empty-roadOnly as humanity comes to understand the implications of what occurred during this period of history will it be able to meet the challenges that lie ahead. The value of the contribution we as Bahá’ís can make to the process demands that we ourselves grasp the significance of the historic transformation wrought by the twentieth century.

(Century of Light – page 0)

The reason I gave recently for my being triggered to step back somewhat from blogging was the increased demand on my time. This was mostly from a particular project – the preparation of a series of eight workshops for a Bahá’í summer school. I thought it might be worth posting the material on this blog to see if it proves useful to others. Here is the third post of eight. I will be posting them on Mondays and Thursdays over four weeks. Century of Light is a key text published by the Bahá’í World Centre designed to help us understand the challenges we face in the world today. If you prefer you can download this in PDF version (3 Components of Our Wreck). I find I have learned a huge amount both from preparing these materials and from walking with others in the workshop along a path of intense exploration over a period of days.

Reflecting on Quotations

We agreed in the first workshop that we would start the day today by trying out one way of building reflection on a quotation into our moments of quiet contemplation.

We need to sit comfortably in our chairs, our backs reasonably erect, both feet in contact with the floor and hands lying loosely in our lap. We need to spend a few moments withdrawing our attention from the outside world and instead focusing it on our breathing. This is probably most easily done by resting our full attention on the movement of our diaphragm. At the start, if it helps, we can use our rate of breathing to slow down our inward recitation of the passage we have memorised. When we are alone we can of course recite the passage out loud. If anyone has not yet memorised a passage it is fine to begin this process by reading it slowly and mindfully after settling quietly into a reflective state of mind.

Keeping our breathing steady and even, we should focus our entire attention upon each phrase as we read or recite it. As Easwaran points out (page 32) in his excellent book, in the end we have to find the pace that suits us best: ‘the space between words is a matter for each person to work out individually.… If the words come too close together, you will not be slowing down the mind… If the words stand too far apart, they will not be working together…’

If we find our mind has wandered, we should, without getting irritated with ourselves, begin the passage again at the beginning. This teaches the mind that it cannot getaway with wandering: there is a price to pay.

In these early stages we should consider ourselves very successful if we can meditate in this way upon a text for five minutes without losing our concentration. Our aim over a period of months could be to increase their concentration span to something like 20 minutes. Clearly this would enable us, if we wished, to memorise longer passages for reciting, rather than repeating the same short text. It is advisable to change the text we use each week to fend off the indifference which can come from overfamiliarity.

  1. Why would regularly experiencing the wisdom captured in words in this way be helpful to us?
  2. What was our experience like this time?

Group Work

Reminder: For each group discussion the group should choose a facilitator. It would be best to change the facilitator for each piece of group work over the series of workshops but the group will remain the same. During the consultation, the facilitator’s role is to keep track of the time, to ensure that:

  1. everyone contributes something,
  2. no one keeps repeating the same point, and
  3. no one makes excessively long contributions.

The group also needs to agree who will keep a record of the main points for when there is a report back to everyone at the end of the group consultation. The aim should be to make the report back no longer than five minutes.

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Group One Task

The Evidence of a Corrosive Cultural Climate

Pages 1: The loss of life alone has been beyond counting. The disintegration of basic institutions of social order, the violation – indeed, the abandonment – of standards of decency, the betrayal of the life of the mind through surrender to ideologies as squalid as they have been empty, the invention and deployment of monstrous weapons of mass annihilation, the bankrupting of entire nations and the reduction of masses of human beings to hopeless poverty, the reckless destruction of the environment of the planet – such are the more obvious in a catalogue of horrors unknown to even the darkest of ages past.

This is a powerful indictment of our culture. We need to unpack some of the implications before we can move on to more positive perspectives.

  1. Where do see evidence of ‘the disintegration of basic institutions of social order’ and ‘the abandonment . . . of standards of decency’? Is there an antidote to this process?
  2. What do we think is meant by ‘betrayal of the life of the mind through surrender to ideologies as squalid as they have been empty’? How might that best be remedied?
  3. Are any of the other points unclear in their implications?

Pages 3-4: The vast majority of the human family, living in lands outside the Western world, shared in few of the blessings and little of the optimism of their European and American brethren. [Refers to China, India, Latin America, & Africa.] . . . Most tragic of all was the plight of the inhabitants of the African continent, divided against one another by artificial boundaries created through cynical bargains among European powers. It has been estimated that during the first decade of the twentieth century over a million people in the Congo perished – starved, beaten, worked literally to death for the profit of their distant masters, a preview of the fate that was to engulf well over one hundred million of their fellow human beings across Europe and Asia before the century reached its end.

These masses of humankind, despoiled and scorned – but representing most of the earth’s inhabitants – were seen not as protagonists but essentially as objects of the new century’s much vaunted civilising process. Despite benefits conferred on a minority among them, the colonial peoples existed chiefly to be acted upon – to be used, trained, exploited, Christianised, civilised, mobilised . . . . To a large extent, religious and political pieties of various kinds masked both ends and means from the publics in Western lands, who were thus able to derive moral satisfaction from the blessings their nations were assumed to be conferring on less worthy peoples, while themselves enjoying the material fruits of this benevolence.

Additional Information:

In his book The Bottom Billion (2007) Paul Collier explains there are at least 58 countries worldwide trapped in poverty, as a result of factors such as incessant conflict or bad governance. The total population of these countries at that time was 980 million people, seventy per cent of whom live in Africa.

In addition we can factor in the abuse of children in various ways (Universal House of Justice: Ridván 2000):

Our children . . . . should not be left to drift in a world so laden with moral dangers. In the current state of society, children face a cruel fate.

  • Millions and millions in country after country are dislocated socially.
  • Children find themselves alienated by parents and other adults whether they live in conditions of wealth or poverty.
  • This alienation has its roots in a selfishness that is born of materialism that is at the core of the godlessness seizing the hearts of people everywhere.
  • The social dislocation of children is in our time a sure mark of a society in decline; this condition is not, however, confined to any race, class, nation or economic condition – it cuts across them all.

It grieves our hearts to realise that in so many parts of the world children are

  • employed as soldiers,
  • exploited as labourers,
  • sold into virtual slavery,
  • forced into prostitution,
  • made objects of pornography,
  • abandoned by parents centred on their own desires, and
  • subjected to other forms of victimisation too numerous to mention.

Many such horrors are inflicted by parents themselves upon their own children. The spiritual and psychological damage defies estimation.

Additional Information from ten years ago:

26,575 children die every single day. Of the 62 countries making no progress or insufficient progress towards the Millennium Development Goal on child survival, nearly 75 per cent are in Africa. In some countries in southern Africa, the prevalence of HIV and AIDS has reversed previously recorded declines in child mortality. Achieving the goal in these countries will require a concerted effort. Reaching the target means reducing the number of child deaths from 9.7 million in 2006 to around 4 million by 2015. Accomplishing this will require accelerated action on multiple fronts: reducing poverty and hunger (MDG 1), improving maternal health (MDG 5), combating HIV and AIDS, malaria and other major diseases (MDG 6), increasing the usage of improved water and sanitation (MDG 7) and providing affordable essential drugs on a sustainable basis (MDG 8). It will also require a re-examination of strategies to reach the poorest, most marginalized communities.

Trafficking in children is a global problem affecting large numbers of children. Some estimates have as many as 1.2 million children being trafficked every year. There is a demand for trafficked children as cheap labour or for sexual exploitation. Children and their families are often unaware of the dangers of trafficking, believing that better employment and lives lie in other countries. Most child casualties are civilians. But one of the most deplorable developments in recent years has been the increasing use of young children as soldiers. In one sense, this is not really new. For centuries children have been involved in military campaigns—as child ratings on warships, or as drummer boys on the battlefields of Europe. Indeed the word ‘infantry’, for foot-soldiers, can also mean a group of young people. What is frightening nowadays is the escalation in the use of children as fighters. Recently, in 25 countries, thousands of children under the age of 16 have fought in wars. In 1988 alone, they numbered as many as 200,000. And while children might be thought to be the people deserving greatest protection, as soldiers they are often considered the most expendable. During the Iran-Iraq war, child soldiers, for example, were sent out ahead in waves over minefields.

  1. How do you think that we managed to disguise from ourselves the iniquity of what we were doing in all these areas for so long and why has Africa come out of it all so badly?
  2. Have we now moved past that period of exploitation, neglect and abuse, or is it still happening? If it is, why does it persist?
  3. If we have moved on to some degree, how did we do it?
  4. Why is the harm we have been doing to our children a crucially important issue for us to address urgently, probably as urgently as climate change if not more so?
  5. What does all this tell us about the size of the task still ahead, if we are to turn things round completely?

Group Two Task

Materialism

Page 6: Where winds of change did dispel the mists, among the educated classes in Western lands, inherited orthodoxies were all too often replaced by the blight of an aggressive secularism that called into doubt both the spiritual nature of humankind and the authority of moral values themselves. Everywhere, the secularisation of society’s upper levels seemed to go hand in hand with a pervasive religious obscurantism among the general population.

Page 89: Fathered by nineteenth century European thought, acquiring enormous influence through the achievements of American capitalist culture, and endowed by Marxism with the counterfeit credibility peculiar to that system, materialism emerged full-blown in the second half of the twentieth century as a kind of universal religion claiming absolute authority in both the personal and social life of humankind. Its creed was simplicity itself. Reality – including human reality and the process by which it evolves – is essentially material in nature. The goal of human life is, or ought to be, the satisfaction of material needs and wants. Society exists to facilitate this quest, and the collective concern of humankind should be an ongoing refinement of the system, aimed at rendering it ever more efficient in carrying out its assigned task.

Page 135: There has not been a society in the history of the world, no matter how pragmatic, experimentalist and multiform it may have been, that did not derive its thrust from some foundational interpretation of reality. Such a system of thought reigns today virtually unchallenged across the planet, under the nominal designation “Western civilisation”. Philosophically and politically, it presents itself as a kind of liberal relativism; economically and socially, as capitalism – two value systems that have now so adjusted to each other and become so mutually reinforcing as to constitute virtually a single, comprehensive world-view.

Appreciation of the benefits – in terms of the personal freedom, social prosperity and scientific progress enjoyed by a significant minority of the Earth’s people – cannot withhold a thinking person from recognizing that the system is morally and intellectually bankrupt. It has contributed its best to the advancement of civilisation, as did all its predecessors, and, like them, is impotent to deal with the needs of a world never imagined by the eighteenth century prophets who conceived most of its component elements. Shoghi Effendi did not limit his attention to divine right monarchies, established churches or totalitarian ideologies when he posed the searching question: “Why should these, in a world subject to the immutable law of change and decay, be exempt from the deterioration that must needs overtake every human institution?”

Page 136: Tragically, what Bahá’ís see in present-day society is unbridled exploitation of the masses of humanity by greed that excuses itself as the operation of “impersonal market forces“. What meets their eyes everywhere is the destruction of moral foundations vital to humanity’s future, through gross self-indulgence masquerading as “freedom of speech”. What they find themselves struggling against daily is the pressure of a dogmatic materialism, claiming to be the voice of “science“, that seeks systematically to exclude from intellectual life all impulses arising from the spiritual level of human consciousness.

These are key paragraphs for us to understand thoroughly if we are to grasp the importance and true nature of a more spiritual path forward.

Blake Newton

Additional Information:

From A Compilation on Scholarship: Baha’i Reference Library):

Just as there is a fundamental difference between divine Revelation itself and the understanding that believers have of it, so also there is a basic distinction between scientific fact and reasoning on the one hand and the conclusions or theories of scientists on the other. There is, and can be, no conflict between true religion and true science: true religion is revealed by God, while it is through true science that the mind of man “discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings” and “comprehendeth the abstract by the aid of the concrete”. However, whenever a statement is made through the lens of human understanding it is thereby limited, for human understanding is limited; and where there is limitation there is the possibility of error; and where there is error, conflicts can arise.

Medina, in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology, explains that he sees the current worldview as destructively rooted in the thinking of Descartes and Newton. He refers to it throughout as the ‘Cartesian-Newtonian worldview.’ Descartes split mind from body, which he considered to be a machine. He considered that all true understanding derived from analysis (splitting into components) and logic. Add to this Newton’s determinism (we can predict anything from our knowledge both of its starting state and the operation of immutable universal laws) and, in Medina’s view, we have the current, in his view pernicious, Cartesian-Newtonian worldview (page 14):

. . . . this classical science worldview is based on a mechanistic view of human beings and the universe that alienates human beings from their spiritual, moral, and emotional faculties. It has divided the world into mutually exclusive opposing forces: the dichotomies of science versus religion, reason versus faith, logic versus intuition, natural versus supernatural, material versus spiritual, and secular versus sacred. The result is a materialistic worldview that emphasises the truth of science, reason, logic, the natural, the material, and the secular while ignoring or even denigrating the truth of religion, faith, intuition, the supernatural, the spiritual, and the sacred.

Medina goes on to unpack what for him at least are the limitations of ‘secular spirituality’ which (page 94) ‘do not necessarily promote an altruistic social ethic or a desire on the part of individuals to improve society for the benefit of all.’ He includes ‘religious fundamentalism’ (page 95-96) under this umbrella ‘because it represents an attempt to use religion as a vehicle to fulfil worldly desires for leadership or power or as a justification for ungodly acts such as forced conversion of pagans or warfare against infidels.’

He goes on to state that our version of Christianity has contributed to the problems the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview creates (page 129) as a result of its concept of ‘an all-transcendent God Who is essentially divorced from the cursed natural world.’ He concludes (pages 129-30):

It is my belief that an extremist form of Christian theism actually worked hand-in-hand with the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview to promulgate a false sense of separation between the spiritual and the material and between the sacred and the secular.

It is important to stress that he is not criticising the true essence of Christianity here, simply some of its more extreme distortions with their destructive consequences.

For those interested in a more mainstream Christian take on the matter see God, Humanity & the Cosmos (Southgate et al: pages 95-98): they too conclude that a mechanical view of the world prevailed as a result of the success of this Descartes/Newton fusion, and this then negatively affected economics and political theory as well as religion and our view of ourselves. 

  1. Why do we think secularism and religious obscurantism might go hand in hand in the way described here?
  2. What are the achievements of American capitalism and what makes them so persuasive given the damage the system seems to be causing?
  3. How can materialism, dogmatic or otherwise, be effectively a religion? What are the parallels?
  4. What is ‘liberal relativism’ and how has it been fostered by a materialist world view? How does this philosophical and moral approach make such a perfect marriage with capitalism? Do we agree that this arrangement is bankrupt?
  5. Are market forces not really impersonal?
  6. Are science and materialism not really in tune?

Report Back: One member of each group explains their conclusions and what they have learnt. Their group members can join in to field whatever questions and comments come their way.

Compensating Accomplishments

Pages 4-5: To point out the failings of a great civilisation is not to deny its accomplishments. As the twentieth century opened, the peoples of the West could take justifiable pride in the technological, scientific and philosophical developments for which their societies had been responsible. . . . . A continuous process of discovery, design and improvement was making accessible power of unimaginable magnitude – with, alas, ecological consequences equally unimagined at the time – especially through the use of cheap fuel and electricity.

Page 5: Changes taking place at the deeper level of scientific thought were even more far-reaching in their implications. The nineteenth century had still been held in the grip of the Newtonian view of the world as a vast clockwork system, but by the end of the century the intellectual strides necessary to challenge that view had already been taken. New ideas were emerging that would lead to the formulation of quantum mechanics; and before long the revolutionising effect of the theory of relativity would call into question beliefs about the phenomenal world that had been accepted as common sense for centuries.

  1. How do we feel about the advantages they quote? Why aren’t they enough to turn our society round and avert the crisis towards which we seem to be hurtling?
  2. In what ways do we think new scientific paradigms may have changed our perspective on reality?

Where now?

. . . . . As the twentieth century opened, Western civilisation was reaping the fruits of a philosophical culture that was rapidly liberating the energies of its populations, and whose influence would soon produce a revolutionary impact throughout the entire world.

More on all this next time.

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